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Schandelmeier: Early spring melt may make Denali Highway bears tougher for hunters to find

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 3, 2016

The Denali Highway is open and in decent driving shape despite a few potholes here and there. Rather than viewing that as an inconvenience, consider those rough spots as a reminder to go slow and enjoy the magnificent views that Denali offers.

There is still snow in the high country, but it is going fast. Like everywhere else in Alaska, spring has come early to the Alaska Range, and the grizzlies are out and about.

Bears tend to come out of hibernation around the same time every spring. Their internal clocks are set and not totally dependent on conditions outside their dens. However, early snowmelt dripping into a den can roust a grizzly out of its normal sleep pattern.

Bears are not necessarily true hibernates. They do spend a very long time in the den but not all of that time is sleep time. They are able to wake slightly to recycle waste products while denning. In warm climates, they may not go into hibernation at all. There are locations on the Alaska Peninsula where brown bears spend very little time in a den as long as weather is moderate and food is abundant.

In the Interior, grasses and roots are the predominant food. Interior grizzlies are also the main predator of moose and caribou calves — and they'll take adults of both species when the opportunity presents itself. I have followed the progress of several large boars that relied almost exclusively on adult moose during late March and early April.

However, once the snow is gone, moose have a much better chance of avoiding bears, though newborn moose calves always will be at risk. Alaska's game regulations are targeted at keeping bear numbers in check in game management units where moose and caribou are hunters' main focus. The tactic of providing long, lenient seasons for bear hunters is a controversial one.

Hunters who take a bear are more likely to kill a male. Studies on Kodiak Island have documented that nearly 70 percent of the brown bears harvested were males.

The grizzly bear is at the top of the food chain with other bears as the only real predator. Some male grizzlies, for instance, make a habit of killing grizzly cubs especially during the summer mating season — and some studies suggest that targeting males may allow more cubs to survive.

Denali Highway grizzlies are one of the easiest populations for the average hunter to access. A normal spring allows snowmobiles to search denning areas of the Upper Susitna, Clearwater and Maclaren drainages with ease. Hunters can also reach the Alphabet Hills south of the Denali Highway, another favorite denning location of grizzlies.

Normal spring snow allows hunters to travel 40 or 50 miles from the highway in a few hours. Snowmobile hunters can cover more than 100 miles a day. But such access can allow abuses. Consider, a snowmobiler can track a bear for many miles and kill it from their machine. Most hunters, of course, are more responsible and may wait with patience by a den for an animal to emerge.

A friend and I once sat near a den for three days. We got sunburned and bored. The bear we waited on would come out of his den in early afternoon, bask in the sun for a few hours, then retreat back into the den. We built a windbreak from snow blocks and, having been in this situation before, read the books we'd brought with us. My buddy was a military sharpshooter. He thought he could kill the bear at the mouth of the den with a single shot. I was skeptical, given that our vantage point was at least 300 yards from the den. I convinced my friend that going into the den with his knife to dispatch a wounded bear would not be much fun.

This season, marginal snow conditions prompted bears to leave their dens early, and fewer grizzlies may be taken in Game Management Unit 13, which includes Glennallen, Eureka and Paxson. The early opening of Denali Highway may permit the taking of a few roadside animals, but be aware that females with this season's cubs are out and about, often frequenting the roadside. The cubs are tiny and are often times hard to see in the brush. Be sure any bear you're stalking is unaccompanied.

Whether you're hunting or sightseeing, early travelers of the Denali Highway have an opportunity to see bear. Leaves will not be out on the highway for another few weeks, allowing for excellent views of the surrounding terrain. Scan the higher, snow-free slopes.

Moose will be calving by the third week of May; they also like somewhat open terrain so they can see potential predators. Grizzlies know this and one should look in those areas. Glacial moraines are favored locations. Drive slowly to find animals.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near the Denali Highway. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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